Housing neutral for Fed doves; Operation Twist running on empty

October 24, 2012

A slightly bigger than forecast 5.7 percent rise in sales of new homes in September reported by the National Association of Realtors on Wednesday lends credibility to September’s jump in housing starts, but appears neutral for Federal Reserve monetary policy discussions.

The jump in new home sales seems to have largely justified the 11 percent jump in September housing starts, says Decision Economics senior economist Pierre Ellis. The inventory of houses for sale at the end of September rose just 1.4 percent, from the end of August and the months’ supply fell to 4.5 months from 4.7 months, he added.

Thus, the increased production of houses seems not to have involved any “over-exuberant optimism” – and the impact if demand were suddenly to evaporate would be contained, he said. “Healthy skepticism seems to prevail in builderland,” Ellis observes.

The home sales jump should leave doves on the Federal Reserve’s policy-making committee feeling justified in their QE3 push since the doves see the third phase of unconventional easing “as a measure to sustain and further strengthen housing demand,” Ellis said. But the sales increase gives Fed doves no new evidence with which to argue QE3 should be stepped up immediately, he said.

Ellis said “odds do favor” a continuation of Operation Twist, a monetary easing tool that involves the Federal Reserve selling instruments that will mature in three years or less and using the proceeds of those sales to buy longer maturities. That program is currently set to end in December.

A TWIST ON OPERATION TWIST

One issue the central bank has to address is that the amount of shorter-dated maturities in its portfolio is shrinking due to Operation Twist-related sales that have already been completed and continue to occur.

“The volume of shorter-dated maturities in the Fed’s portfolio after January 31, 2013 gets low, potentially limiting the volume of purchases the Fed can make,” Ellis said in a conversation with Reuters. As of Wednesday, October 17, the Fed’s portfolio held $99.5 billion of securities maturing between now and the end of 2015. “That’s what is eligible to be used in the current (Operation Twist) program, Ellis said, and will gradually be depleted by sales totaling about $40 billion a month.

Ellis says:

The Fed can’t continue Operation Twist at the same rate unless it lengthens the maturity (remaining life) of instruments available for them to sell. Either they have to tone down Operation Twist or they have to replace part of it with something else of equivalent force to remove duration from the market to avoid any slowdown in stimulus at year-end.

“Whether that happens today – or in December, after a hint today – is uncertain,” he concluded.

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